Albertus Clark Jr., better known as “Toots” (a nickname based on his childhood devotion to Tootsie Rolls), remembers a time when scallops were so cheap and plentiful they were sometimes dumped back into Gardiner’s Bay. Back then, predatory weakfish, blues, tuna and striped bass swam (and voraciously dined) under schools of bunker fish as big as a football field. Many families lived off the sea; the scallop industry alone supported hundreds of jobs. When asked when he started fishing the waters around Shelter Island, Toots replies: “I was always a bayman.”
In 1924, when Clark was nine years old, his family (mother, father, four siblings, two dogs, and numerous chickens and ducks) moved from Huntington, Long Island, to Shelter Island. His father was about to become caretaker of 420 acres of farmland, a part of what is now Mashomack Preserve, owned by “Miss Annie” Nicoll. The magnificent 2,100 acres, including 10 miles of coastline, was purchased by the Nature Conservancy in 1980. Toots says Shelter Island was still the country in those days, a place where “everyone had a cow and some chickens, and corn was planted for the Mashomack deer—the big corn cribs were opened if the deer were starving in the winter.”
At the age of 12, he also went to work for Nicoll, whose family had owned the property for more than 200 years. As a boy, Clark earned 50 cents a day planting, feeding deer, caring for dairy cattle and organizing fishing tackle. He fondly recalls how Miss Annie would end the workday—she’d shout through a megaphone that it was quitting time, and set out a big platter of cookies and a pitcher of milk for all the farmhands. After work, he’d practice his driving skills. “How many kids drive cars at 11 or 12 years old? I even raced Model As.” Because both of his parents were clammers, he also spent a lot of time around a big farmhouse table, talking and shucking clams. If this all sounds idyllic, Toots would agree. He says: “I had the greatest life of any kid growing up.”
It may be natural to prefer what life was like “back in the day,” especially when you’ve lived your life in an area as astonishingly beautiful as the East End of Long Island. As they say, everyone wants to be the last person to build a house in a beautiful place. A visit to Mashomack can show us what the land was like when Toots was a boy. But we can only imagine the bay back then, when schools of bunker covered acres, and the eelgrass was so dense and plentifully laden with scallops and clams that the mollusks were easy to come by but sometimes hardly worth the effort. That’s because, Clark says, weakfish, for example, might bring as much as 25 cents a pound. But for scallops you only got a nickel. (He adds that a loaf of bread would cost about a nickel too, if you didn’t bake your own. And if you didn’t have a cow, a quart of milk would be about seven cents.)
He says, and he is undoubtedly correct: “We will never see again what was here when I came. As a bayman, if you came in at low tide you couldn’t get in—so much eelgrass. DDT was the end of that. And the honey—all my life I lived on wild honey. There were 29 hives in Mashomack. The honey bees are gone.”
We are perhaps familiar with at least a few of the reasons for this dramatic change, the environmental villains in this story—DDT, pollution, dredging, unrestricted land development, sewage, boat waste, global warming and the extreme concentrations of brown algae blooms (brown tide) blocking the sun and killing the sea vegetation so necessary for aquatic food and shelter. About 90 percent of the eel-grass on eastern Long Island has been destroyed over the past 70 years, leaving scallops, oysters, and clams, those filters and purifiers of the sea, homeless. What was thought to be eternal and indestructible just a few decades ago—those incomprehensible, unfathomable waters that surround us—have turned out to be so ecologically sensitive that they became contaminated almost before anyone knew what was happening.
The schools of bunker that Clark mentioned (also known as Atlantic menhaden), are perhaps the most harvested fish in the United States, although few people have ever heard of them because they never appear on a dinner menu. Used in numerous products including fish oil, fertilizer, animal feed and vitamins, but too oily for human consumption, they are a primary food source for larger fish such as striped bass, tuna, bluefish and weakfish. Deplete the bunker and many other fish will disappear too. This started to happen after World War II, Clark recalls, when “there were six or seven bunker boats here every year, taking tons, destroying the bunkers. They should have waited until they came and spawned.” (Bunkers do not reach maturity and spawn until they are three years old. Thus, indiscriminately hauling loads of fish can, ultimately, devastate the species). To compound the negative ecological impact, bunkers, like mollusks, are filters of the sea, consuming phytoplankton, and thus help to control the growth of algae. With a diminishing scallop, clam and oyster population, they become vital. Remove all of the filters, and the sea will eventually die.
Emerson Hasbrouck, fisheries and marine environmental specialist for Cornell Cooperative Extension, states that although there was a significant decrease in the menhaden population in the 1960s, most likely due to a combination of environmental and fishing pressures, he believes the fish are now in “excellent con- dition,” at least on the East End of Long Island. Large scale commercial bunker fishing boats have taken their purse seine nets elsewhere, because the smelly and unattractive processing plants that once lined the shores have relocated to the Gulf of Mexico as land values in the East became prohibitively expensive. The boats follow the reduction facilities.
There are, of course, numerous other ways to destroy a fragile sea; including habitat destruction and indiscriminate use of pesticides. When Toots says that DDT put an end to eelgrass and honey bees, he’s speaking of mosquito control on Long Island. It would be hard to find a better example of the law of unintended consequences. Since mosquitoes breed in stagnant water, it seemed sensible to eliminate the breeding places, and so, by the end of the 1930s, about 90 percent of the Suffolk County wetlands were drained by cutting 30-inch wide by 30-inch deep grids every 100 feet. This was known as “grid ditching,” and the long channels killed most of the sea grasses, causing a cycle that left many of the birds and fish that ate mosquito larvae with neither shelter nor sustenance. This was soon combined with the widespread use of DDT, a pesticide proven successful in controlling malarial mosquitoes during World War II. Using it for Suffolk County insect control was, according to scientists who filed a class-action suit, “like using atomic weapons to control criminals in New York City.” In 1968, Suffolk County became the first place in the United Stated to ban the pesticide. (In 1972, it was banned nationwide. By that time, it had annihilated populations of birds, bees, butterflies, crabs, mollusks and fish.) The effect on the bay was profound. The New York Times reported the hard clam and scallop industry was still worth $110 million a year in the late 1970s, and was about 60 percent of the national production. By 1986 it had shrunk to $40 million, and has yet to recover.
It takes time, money, education and a lot of work, but habitats can, hopefully, be restored. The Peconic Estuary Eelgrass Restoration Program (a part of Cornell University Cooperative Extension) is attempting to reestablish eelgrass meadows in a variety of eastern Long Island locations, including an area off the eastern shore of Shelter Island known locally as “Bunker City” because that’s where the processing plants used to be. Chris Pickerell, a habitat restoration specialist for the program, said in an e-mail message: “True restoration takes several years. Our goal is to initiate the process and let nature take its course. The theory is once you establish the plants the animals will follow, and we typically see this.”
Other organizations, like Save the Sound, New York Sea Grant, Peconic Bay Keeper, as well as Cornell University Cooperative Extension, are educating the public, planting beach grasses, restoring tidal flushing and seeding the waters with scallops, clams and oysters. Hasbrouck mentions that the bay scallop population remains diminished, and hard clams have declined in Great South Bay, but small clams seem to be increasing in number. He says that he is optimistic about the future of eastern Long Island’s bays, and that all species are now carefully regulated. Every year federal agencies determine if over- fishing is occurring, and set appropriate limits if necessary.
Toots didn’t get in any scalloping this year, he says that there were only about four days worth of harvest anyway, and he didn’t have his boat in the water at that time. He is skeptical about it getting better. Although he applauds any restorative attempts, he believes that the fishing techniques have become too sophisticated, and that the damage is still happening at a pace too fast for a successful turnaround. And so, for the moment, he’s forgetting about the bays, and concentrating instead on his new car.
Decades of damage can’t be corrected quickly, and there are likely other challenges to the environment that we aren’t yet aware of. Those days of abundance, of seas blackened by schools of fish larger than we can easily comprehend, have been reported too often, by too many, to be apocryphal. Although the stories seem almost like fairy tales today, they were, once upon a time, commonplace. As real as, say, ice in the North Pole.